Take to the sea with Sea Change

A new voyage for the Carnegie Medal as it takes to the sea with Richard Armstrong’s Sea Change.

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Jacket image of the first edition of Sea Change
Jacket image of the first edition of Sea Change

Following the old-fashioned lyricism of Walter de la Mare, 1948 saw a complete shift in tone with Richard Armstrong’s contemporary career novel Sea Change. The novel focuses on sixteen-year-old Cam Renton, an apprentice merchant seaman, and follows him from his arrival on board a new ship through to his acceptance as a valued member of the ship’s crew. Cam’s age and the focus on work in this novel make it the first of the Carnegie Medal-winners which can squarely be classed as an adolescent novel, albeit there is nothing in terms of content which would make it unsuitable for child readers.  It also marks a return to contemporary realism for the first time since We Couldn’t Leave Dinah in 1941 (if that book can be classed as realism, exactly), although with plenty of adventure in the form of powerful storms, a fire on board ship, and a perilous journey as part of the skeleton crew for a salavaged ship. Although W. Berwick Sayers had stated in the first year of the Medal that the winning book should ‘as far as possible’ appeal to both boys and girls, Sea Change is unapologetically (as you can see from the cover) a book for and about boys: there is not a single female character, nor even a mention of women (even in the form of mothers or sisters). This again was a departure for the Medal, although several earlier winners had focused primarily on female characters.

This is an interesting book in that it’s simultaneously very old-fashioned and very modern. It owes a great deal to the nineteenth-century seafaring adventure story,  giving us a kind of ‘bildungsroman by sea’, but its concern to map out the route to a successful career and to emphasise the skills which will be used in the world of work it very much reflects British sensibilities of the late 1940s and early 1950s, a period when the ‘career novel’ was at its zenith.

One element of the book which aligns with the tradition of nineteenth-century boys’ adventure narratives is its assertion of British superiority. This is paradoxically most apparent in the episode which constitutes Cam’s most ignominious point in the narrative. Chafing at the orders he has received to remain close to the ship, Cam and his fellow apprentice Rusty take an illicit trip to a fort in Port of Spain and end up getting arrested by the soldiers manning the fort. This episode serves as a climax to Cam’s feelings of discontent about the orders he has received and his erroneous belief that the second mate ‘has it in for him’, serving as the turning point for his attitude on board ship. The two boys have to be rescued from their scrape by the captain of their ship, but despite this  their strength, courage and quick wittedness is contrasted throughout with the slovenly, ill disciplined behaviour of the soldiers manning the fort. (It’s not completely apparent, incidentally, what nationality these soldiers are – can anyone tell me who would have been manning a fort in Trinidad in the 1940s?). The sentry guarding the fort – asleep on the job – is ‘the strangest soldier Cam had ever seen’: ‘his khaki tunic had no buttons and hung loose over a blue- and white-striped singlet; his trousers were creased and stained and the bottoms of them stopped short of his dusty ankles’. When Rusty trips over his rifle, the soldier awakes and attacks him with a knife, but Cam is swift and efficient in disarming him and the boys are captured only because more soldiers arrive and overpower them. They almost succeed in outwitting the soldiers and escaping from the fort on their own, and and when the captain does rescue them, he persuades the fort commander to drop all the charges by suggesting to him that this will involve losing face. The commander reflects that he does not wish ‘to admit that my command is so undisciplined that sentries sleep at their posts, so inefficient two beardless boys can defy all the force we can muster’. Thus the episode ultimately serves to impress on the reader as well as on Cam the value of British naval discipline and its inherent superiority to other nations. Hazel Sheeky Bird has argued (in work forthcoming) that the ‘navalist’ tradition is key to the construction of British national identity in children’s literature of the early twentieth century, and this is an interesting reflection in light of the focus on heritage which has been present in earlier Carnegie winners. There is, I think, some continuity of concern here, even though this is a very different kind of book.

Cam himself is inducted into this tradition over the course of the book, developing from an apprentice chafing under orders to do some of the most mundane tasks on board ship to a seaman whom the second mate – who is clearly presented within the novel as a model of the idea sailor – describes as ‘Tough as old boots, keen as mustard, and guts to spare’. Although he is still an apprentice at the end of the book, he is identified as the de facto mate of the skeleton crew who have salvaged a derelict ship and returned safely after a perilous journey. All this would fit well into the traditional adventure novel, but the way it is presented also clearly reflects 1940s concerns about  education, teenage identity, and the world of work. At several points Armstrong emphasises the value of skills learnt at school: lessons which may have seemed boring at the time but whose application is vital in the world of work. Cam is allowed a brief teenage rebellion, but Armstrong also emphasises the value of obedience and of trusting that adults know what is best, even if they do not share their reasoning with you.

All this is interesting from a socio-historical perspective, then, but how does it hold up as a story? I do have a bit of a taste for this kind of ‘authoritarian’ bildungsroman, although usually I enjoy i in the form of girls’ school stories (which tend to follow a similar pattern of first resisting, then embracing, the order and authority of the school). However, it’s fair to say that I am probably not the most appreciative audience for a book about adventures at sea. I don’t think, however, that this is the only reason that this is the Carnegie winner I’ve enjoyed least so far. In contrast to the beautiful prose of de la Mare’s book, this is something of a comedown: the dialogue especially is stilted and clearly suffers from the tension between reproducing the language of young sailors realitically and keeping the book within the perceived limits of what is appropriate for young readers. One of the key dramatic episodes in the book starts like this:

[…] Rusty pointed to the porthole through which the night could be seen full of red glare.

‘Suffering snakes! She’s on fire,’ he yelled, and made for the door.

‘Not in your bare feet, you chump!’ shouted Cam.

There’s something to be said for plain prose – and for representing a rather less middle-class millieu than had previously featured in most Carnegie winners – but I found this rather stilted. This is the first of the winners I’ve read which is now out of print, and it’s easy to understand why. Marcus Crouch praises the characterisation and realism of the book, but neither were especially vivid to me.

Despite these caveats, I think this does mark an interesting turn for the Carnegie Medal. Richard Armstrong was the first winner who could really claim to be a working-class writer: born to a blacksmith in Northumberland, he left school at 13 and worked first in the shipyards and then at sea. The book itself is also much more aimed at working-class readers than any previous winner: the kind of boys who would be likely, like Cam, to leave school at 15 and embark on an apprenticeship. This really broadens the definition of ‘childhood’ which the Carnegie Medal was catering to. For that alone, the book deserves an honourable mention, if sadly not a continuing life in print!

 

SOME UNSCIENTIFIC RATINGS AND NOTES…

My overall rating: 5/10 – It had something to offer me, but the clunky language and the rather thin characterisation made it a bit of a grind

Plot: 7/10 – There’s plenty going on here – maybe a bit too much. I felt I was moving from episode to episode rather than the plot really developing.

Characterisation: 4/10 – Cam does develop a bit, but in general there are stock characters rather than actual characterisation.

Themes: Seafaring, adventure, realism, work, nationhood

Publisher: Dent (the third win for this publisher)

Illustrator: None in my edition, but the first edition had line drawings by the marine artist Michal Leszcynski

Author’s nationality/race: White English

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Visitors from London

A forgotten treasure: Kitty Barne’s Visitors from London

The first Carnegie Medal winner published during the war years (The Radium Woman having slightly predated the start of the war) tackled the war itself: Kitty Barne’s Visitors From London  is an evacuation story. It’s actually a sequel to Barne’s earlier novel Family Footlights, which is about the same family, but since I haven’t read Family Footlights I can say with some confidence that it stands alone. This is a summer holiday story with some genetic similarity to Arthur Ransome’s books, but with a wartime twist. The book takes place in the first months of the war, when Operation Pied Piper was put into action. The four Farrar children are spending the summer in the country with their Aunt Myra, but what promises to be a peaceful holiday is interrupted by the news that evacuees are to be billeted at the nearby farmhouse, Steadings. The Farrars and Aunt Myra are roped into preparing for the evacuees and taking care of them: hijinks ensue. By the end of the summer, the evacuees have mostly retreated back to London (as many did during the ‘phony war’) and the children return to their boarding school.

This is the first of the winning novels which isn’t still in print; according to Keith Barker it was the first of the Carnegie books to go out of print. Both Barker and Pat Thomson (writing in Carousel) seem to find this unsurprising and regard the book as rather dated. This baffles me, because I found it utterly fresh and engaging. One of the criticisms often levelled at children’s books of this period is that their child characters are preternaturally goodtempered, well behaved, and respectful to their elders. It’s a criticism I previously took at face value, but reading this book really underlines how lazy a characterisation of the period it is. All Barne’s characters are very distinct, realistic, and not above a bit of family discord: I particularly enjoyed the youngest girl, Sally, who has frequent burst of outrage when things don’t go her way. I also loved the evacuee Lily, an enormously competent twelve-year-old who has cared for her two younger siblings since the death of her mother. Barne does a great job of depicting the complex jockeying for position between the evacuees and the Steadings people, between members of the different families, and between children and adults. Typically, it’s the children who win out in these scenarios, often by subtly manipulating the adults – as when 10-year-old Jimmy succeeds in deflecting the wrath of a local warden bent on accusng them of breaking the blackout by informing him in a concerned manner that he’s left his car running – an offence during wartime.

Barker suggests that the book is rather patronising towards the evacuees, but although they are certainly a source of humour I found Barne’s treatment of all the working-class characters both respectful and (as far as I can judge from this historical distance) realistic. Lily is comical in her role as miniature mother, but Barne also makes it clear that she is in fact a very competent parent who loves her siblings and does a good job of looking after them. She has a moment of triumph right at the beginning of the book when it’s discovered that despite all the talk of ‘iron rations’ she is the only person who has had the sense to bring a  tin opener, and there’s also a nice indication that she is smart and has potential to do more than work in a factory (the fate she expects once she turns 15). Along with Lily – an honorary ‘mother’ there’s Mrs Fell, ‘pretty free with her slaps’ and deeply suspicious of the country; Mrs Jacobson, ‘dark, plump, good-humoured, inclined to make the best of things’; and Mrs Thompson, controlled by her husband, terrified of the bombs and just about everything else; all accompanied by their children. In other words, we don’t have a generic portrait of the working classes here, but a much more nuanced portrayal of diverse people from very subtly different backgrounds who respond in different but understandable ways to the strange situation in which they find themselves.

Some of the themes which were present in the other books I’ve written about so far resurface here. There is a strong sense of the value of the countryside as a source of enduring stability and tradition. At the start of the book, Gerda (the eldest Farrar girl) imagines the farmers’ wives who have inhabited the old house ‘whisking in and out of the doors, hanging up their bacon on those hooks, making their cheeses in that small dairy’, and the book is full of such details of country life. The knowledge of the shepherds  – Old Tolhurst and Young Tolhurst (like Ransome’s Billies, both are old men) – is given special respect both by the characters of the book and by the narrative voice. One of the evacuees, Fred Fell, is immediately drawn to the shepherds and proves to be a natural at keeping sheep; in an interesting linking of place and race, Young Tolhurst suggests that the name ‘Fell’ suggests it is in his blood. Yet the book is not solely backwards looking. Barne pokes a little fun at middle-class attempts to revive ‘traditional’ ways through the character of Mrs Meredith-Smith, who vainly attempts to persuade children to play the ancient Sussex game of stoolball, and is generally portrayed as well-meaning but rather sentimental. More fundamentally, the success of the whole community is derived not from a return to ‘traditional’ ways of being but from a willingness to accept change and work together. I share Kim Reynolds’ view (in her forthcoming book Left Behind) that Barne presents the Steadings community as a sort of democratic experiment: everyone has to work together and accept one another’s peculiarities in order to achieve a greater good.

Ruth Gervis, who illustrated the first edition, also deserves credit for her charming and lively pencil drawings. Her contribution to this means that the Carnegie Medal in its early years had something of a family quality: as I mentioned in my Ballet Shoes post, Gervis was Noel Streatfeild’s sister, and Kitty Barne was their cousin-in-law. (The literary connection, however, was that they were published by Dent.) She’s a brilliant illustrator, and surprisingly for a wartime book was given quite a bt of latitude: there are 40 illustrations scattered throughout the text.

Why did this book not ‘stick’ when it’s so lively? The last reprint by Dent seems to have been 1960, and then there was one by Cedric Chivers (who seem to be largely a book binding firm – anyone know more about them?) in 1972. This is about the time that books by people who were children in the war started to appear – Carrie’s War came out in 1973. So perhaps this didn’t quite chime with the vision of the war which was being created in retrospect. Or perhaps the impulse to create a new literature in the 1960s contributed to this being mischaracterised as rather more staid and nostalgic than it really is. Whatever the reason, this seems to me to be a prime candidate for a reprint.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 9/10

Plot: 9/10 – a little episodic

Characterisation: 10/10

Themes: Home, heritage, history, modernity, war, evacuation, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis

 

 

The Circus is Coming

Noel Streatfeild returns to the Carnegie with a story of circus life.

Having missed out on the Carnegie Medal in 1936, Noel Streatfeild got her win in 1938 with The Circus is Coming (now commonly published as Circus Shoes, which annoys me no end as there is no shoe theme or link with Ballet Shoes *grumps*). This year also marks the beginning of some vocal disagreement about the Medal: only a handful of the committee turned up to the award meeting, a fact which was strongly criticised by the pioneering children’s librarian Eileen Colwell. Not unjustly, Colwell felt that the Medal should be awarded by people with a strong interest in children’s books (at this point it was still not awarded by librarians with a specific expertise in this area), and at the very least a full committee. I’m not sure whether she actually disagreed with the choice of The Circus is Coming, or just the rather slapdash way it was chosen. Certainly, Streatfeild’s book isn’t the most famous children’s book published that year (The Sword and the Stone also appeared in 1936, for example) and this isn’t one of Streatfeild’s own best-known titles.

Interestingly, this book combines some of the qualities of Ballet Shoes with the other commended title for 1936, Sampson’s Circus. We have the circus setting of the latter, but with more of the career focus of the former. The book opens with orphans Peter and Santa contemplating the problem of where they will live following the death of their aunt Rebecca, who has taken care of them since the death of their parents in a railway accident.Having been told that they will be sent to orphanages, they recollect the existence of an uncle Gus, and figure out (via postcards he has sent their aunt) that he is part of a circus. Naturally, they decide to run away to the circus, and the majority of the book is dedicated to their life there, their growing understanding of the circus world, and their gradual assimilation as they gain circus skills. The book culminates in them saving the circus horses from a potentially devasting fire (an element which I realise as I write gives this book an element of Pigeon Post as well as the other two 1936 titles) and being accepted as permanent members of the circus.

Like Ballet Shoes, this book sounds as if it would be pure wish fulfilment, but ends up being soomething much more substantial. In a lesser novel of this genre, Peter and Santa would turn out to be circus prodigies almost as soon as they arrived in the circus. However, not only does Streatfeild resist this route, she gives us protagonists who for most of the book aren’t really good at anything. The first chapter introduces us to Peter and Santa’s rather peculiar background: we’re told that ‘Being lady’s maid to a duchess has made Aunt Rebecca suppose that only dukes and duchesses, and perhaps kings and queens, could be right’. Aunt Rebecca accordingly does her best to bring Peter and Santa up in the way that the duchess had recommended for children, an effort which is considerably hampered by her very limited income. As a result, they’ve been tutored by an odd assortment of unqualified tutors rather than sent to school, dressed in ‘best’ clothes all the time, and become generally rather secluded and timid. They’ve been encouraged to think of themselves as rather special, so it’s a shock when first the people they meet when running away, and later the circus people, find them both odd and rather dull in their lack of any ‘useful’ knowledge. I’m a little ambivalent about the way this is set up: there’s definitely a classist element in the way Aunt Rebecca is implied to be trying and failing to ape her betters, and it’s not insigificant that one of the turning points in the way Peter and Santa see themselves is their discovery that their parents and grandparents were ‘quite simple people’ – all domestic servants. On the other hand, all the working-class characters in the book (which is most of them, if we class circus performers as working-class) are portrayed with complete respect and realism, and Gus is shown to be proud of his family. More importantly, the theme of the book as a whole centres around the value of work: everyone in the circus takes it for granted that working hard is important and is baffled by Peter and Santa’s rather passive attitude. Work is explicitly presented as an opportunity to shape your own destiny: one character tells Santa  ‘I don’t understand you kids. If I wasn’t any good at my books, I’d start practising up for something I could do. I wouldn’t want to be pushed into some job just because I hadn’t worked at anything special’. This is a theme which is present in Ballet Shoes, but comes back even more strongly here: we never get to see Peter and Santa shine at their circus skills (haute ecole riding and acrobatics respectively), but we do get the satisfaction of seeing them work and gradually improve.

Like Ballet Shoes, this book is shaped by Noel Streatfeild’s own experiences: she travelled with Bertam Mills circus for several months in preparation for writing the novel. This really shows in the portrait of circus life, which has a specificity which is completely absent from Sampson’s Circus. A lot of attention is paid to the different acts, for example, and the proper terminology for each: there’s a Risley Act (involving juggling people), haute ecole riding, clowns and augustes, and different types of trapeze work. Having spent a short time with a circus, I was intrigued by how many details were the same: for example, Streatfeild mentions the clogs worn by performers on their way to the tent (nowadays more likely to be Crocs!). All of this is what really makes the book live.

The Circus is Coming isn’t quite as readable and accessible as Ballet Shoes, not least because Peter and Santa are not necessarily very likeable characters. They’re very believable, though, especially in their interactions with one another: Streatfeild does a good job of portraying children who fight realistically but also have a genuine bond with one another. In fact, all the characters are well-drawn: I liked the fact that we’re allowed to see their uncle’s point of view, and Streatfeild is frank about the fact that he finds them something of an inconvenience and not all that easy to get on with, especially at first. The foreign characters are all well-drawn, too; although she’s sometimes a little heavy-handed on the bad English, there’s a sense that this is masking real people and real cultures  who just can’t necessarily express themselves completely. It helps that Peter and Santa are not particularly admirable, as this means that when they judge the other characters we tend to feel that they are the ones who are wrong, rather than allying ourselves with their point of view. Interestingly, this is the third book in this project so far which features a ‘foreign’ character asserting their Britishness.

As I’ve established previously, I love Noel Streatfeild and I really enjoyed this book. It’s less overtly radical than Ballet Shoes, but in asserting the value of work and the value of the people who work hard, I think it does have a somewhat progressive stance. I personally would pick this over The Sword in the Stone, though clearly Streatfeild and I are on the wrong side of history in this regard. Perhaps this is the first of the Carnegie Medal winners to get the award that ‘should’ have gone to an earlier book by the same author, but it stands up in its own right.

 

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 8/10

Plot: 7/10 (There’s not a huge amount to the plot, and it’s really more about the characters and the setting)

Characterisation: 8/10

Themes: Family, change, working class, work, performance, circus

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Steven Spurrier

 

 

Ballet Shoes

Not a Carnegie winner, but certainly an enduring presence in the world of children’s literature: Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes.

The third book to be highly commended for the inaugural Carnegie Medal was Noel Streatfeild’s Ballet Shoes. Obviously, unlike Sampson’s Circus, this book is very much still in circulation today. In fact, in terms of an actual child readership I’m fairly sure it’s stood the test of time rather better than Pigeon Post: the fact that the latter is now being published with its original jacket design suggests that it’s really targeting the adult nostalgia / scholarly market, whereas the edition of Ballet Shoes  currently available on Amazon  sports a lurid pink cover with a photo of ballet shoes which is clearly intended to appeal to a certain type of contemporary child reader. (I like to think that the charming Ruth Gervis illustrations from the first edition would still appeal to children, but hey ho.) It undoubtedly holds a more prominent place in popular culture than Pigeon Post (and maybe even than Swallows and Amazons), with its latest TV adaptation in 2007. Possibly this proves that the Carnegie Committee did have some instinct for popularity as well as prestige (or it may have just been luck).

I didn’t read this book as a child (otherwise I might have been more receptive to the ballet lessons my mother insisted I take) but I can’t claim to be coming to this book without any preconceptions. Coming to Streatfeild’s books at some point in adulthood, I gobbled them up as if they had been childhood favourites, and I can still reread any of her books with blithe disregard for the weaker bits. She does tend to recycle quite a lot, hitting the same narrative beats and sometimes even repeating dialogue, but this doesn’t diminish my enjoyment in the slightest. So, fair warning that I don’t necessarily have a lot of critical distance from this book.

For those of you who have inexplicably missed out on Ballet Shoes, it’s the story of three orphans – Pauline, Petrova and Posy Fossil – who are ‘collected’ like Fossils by an eccentric elderly gentleman (Great Uncle Matthew – or Gum for short) who finds them during his travels around the world and essentially dumps them on his niece, Sylvia. They aren’t blood sisters and all have quite different backgrounds: Pauline is the survivor of a shipwreck, Petrova the daughter of a Russian soldier who Gum meets in hospital, and Posy the child of a ballerina who doesn’t really care for children. Being eccentric, the same day he acquires Posy, Gum disappears on a 5-year journey which turns out to last more like 10. As a consequence of Sylvia’s money running out due to his extended absence, the three Fossil girls end up training at a ballet school in order to ensure they have some prospect of earning money. The majority of the plot concerns their training and careers. There’s a degree of wish fulfilment in this, particularly in the case of Posy, who turns out to have a natural gift for dancing and becomes the protégé of the owner of the school. Really, though, this is a career novel, and Streatfeild is a lot more interested in the hard work involved in the performing arts than in the fantasy of the novice who turns out to be magically better than everyone else. This is probably partly a reflection of Streatfeild’s own background in the performing arts – she trained at RADA and worked as a professional actress for over 10 years – but I think that it also reflects a wider cultural preoccupation with the value of work. Pigeon Post is also very much a book about hard work (the earlier Ransome books are interested in play; the events of PP are explicitly contrasted with these when Nancy comments that the prospecting is ‘serious business, with no pretence about it’), and this is a theme we’ll come back to in some of the books to come.

Although Ballet Shoes shares this theme with Pigeon Post, in every other respect it’s very difference. Where Ransome’s book is about preserving heritage, Streatfeild’s is about radical change. At the start of the book, we’re introduced to Great Uncle Matthew, his habit of collecting fossils, and his house:

Collecting fossils, he naturally needed somewhere to put them, and that is how he came to buy the house in the Cromwell Road. It had large rooms, and about six floors, including the basement, and on every floor, and in almost every room, he kept fossils. Naturally a house like that needed somebody to look after it […]

Sylvia, his niece, is the person who ends up looking after the house, and she seems to be largely responsible for keeping it as Gum likes it, bar the occasional tussle over disposing of a few fossils when he collects too many. This is backstory, though, and by the time of the novel Gum has collected a different sort of ‘Fossil’: the three girls, who adopt this as their shared surname because they have been collected just like the fossils. Of course children are not fossils, though, and so both they and the rest of the household grow and change. When money starts to run out, Sylvia starts to take borders in order to earn money, despite her conviction that Gum wouldn’t like them. She ceases ‘keeping’ the house and starts making ‘a lot of alterations’. Her boarders also bring a lot of alterations: they include a dancer (who suggests the ballet school option for the girls), two female literature professors (who are surely gay, and gloriously self-fulfilled with their joy in Shakespeare and their delicious hot drinks which are heavily implied to be laced with spirits), and a couple who arrive with a motor car (of which more anon). The message runing throughout the book is that it’s not possible or even desirable to try to keep life just as it’s always been: when faced with change it’s better to roll with the punches and work hard to make something good out of your new circumstances. The book pushes back against the idea that the performing arts are not ‘respectable’ (much is made of how carefully regulated child performers are), and we’re given a beautiful alternative family made up of all these unrelated women (the three Fossil sisters, Sylvia,  and their nurse Nana) with the boarders as a kind of extended family.

The idea of change is most important to Petrova. Notwithstanding the great significance of the performing arts to this book, it’s really Petrova’s book. She’s the only one of the three sisters who doesn’t take to performing: she’s competent, but she finds it all a bore, and is really interested in mechanics. Streatfeild doesn’t typically linger on characters’ internal lives, but when she does delve into feelings it’s usually Petrova who she’s focusing on.  Petrova struggles the whole way through with her conviction that her desire to work with machines is unattainable, both because she’s a girl and because the family can’t afford for her not to make money on the stage. By the end, though, she’s able to pursue this dream (Gum returns and is very pleased with the idea of Petrova training as a pilot) and it’s vindicated as a really important thing for a girl to do. The Fossils have instituted a vow that they’ll put their name in the history books, but Pauline and Posy see their success in the performing arts as closing off this possibility (though I think the novel sets us up to feel that they’re wrong). The responsibility therefore devolves onto Petrova:

‘You’ll go into history books. That’ll put Fossil there all right; it doesn’t matter about Pauline and me.’

Petrova looked puzzled. ‘How will I?’

‘Flying, of course.’ […]

‘Would that?’ said Petrova.

‘Of course.’ Pauline spoke eagerly. ‘Don’t you see? It’s sort of exploring, like Frobisher, or Drake. Amy Mollison and Jean Batten will be there, but not as important as you. The books will say: “The greatest explorer in the middle of the twentieth century was Petrova Fossil, who found routes by which goods could be carried at greater speed and less cost, and so she revolutionized trade.”

The mention of Amy Mollison and Jean Batten works to emphasise that this is an achievable feat (both were notable aviators). The reference to exploring also fascinates me: I’ve suggested that Pigeon Post is all about valuing the British landscape, something which seems to me to be part of the response to the unravelling of Empire. Here Petrova’s future is framed specifically in terms of exploration: something which fits her into the imperial narrative. In one sense I suppose this is regressive, but it’s also incredibly radical: Petrova, who is both female and foreign-born, is presented as someone who can potentially step into the shoes of Drake. There’s a notion here, I think, of reinventing Britain’s identity through radical innovation.

Petrova’s character also provides the one thing Streatfeild’s book has in common with Sampson’s Circus: both books present British identity as something which can be completely and successfully assimilated. Like Jack in Sampson’s Circus, Petrova has been born as a foreign national but brought up in Britain from early childhood. When the ballet school put on a performance to raise money for a Russian hospital, it is seen as especially fitting that Petrova should have a role, but ‘Petrova thought to herself, that though of course she was very glad to help the hospital, it was not because she was Russian; for she was British by adoption, and had taken a British name, and felt very British inside.’ A topical and rather cheering statement in 1936.

Why didn’t this win in 1936 instead of Pigeon Post? The Carnegie committee stated at the time that one reason was that PP would appeal to both boys and girls, whereas Ballet Shoes and Sampson’s Circus were more likely to appeal to just one gender. I think there’s plenty here that a boy might enjoy, though to some extent it is a story about girlhood (especially when you come to Petrova’s narrative). I think Streatfeild’s characterisation isn’t quite so nuanced and fine-grained as Ransome’s, although in part this is a function of this being a stand-alone book rather than part of a series. Compared to Swallows and Amazons, there is considerably more character detail. As we’ve established, I love Pigeon Post, so while I think Ballet Shoes would have been an equally worthy winner, this isn’t a case where looking at it with the benefit of hindsight makes me think the Medal went to the ‘wrong’ book.  Ballet Shoes would have set a very different tone as the first Medal winner, though: less nostalgic, more radical; much more urban in its concerns; and much more concerned with change. You get the sense, in Streatfeild’s book, of shaking off the Victorian age briskly and cheerfully, with none of the urge to look back and reclaim British heritage which is such a central feature of Ransome’s. This says something about the Carnegie as part of that heritage-building project, a theme to which I suspect I shall return in future posts.

 

Some unscientific ratings and notes…

My overall rating: 10/10

Plot: 10/10

Characterisation: 9/10

Themes: Ballet, performing arts, modernity, family, change

Publisher: Dent

Illustrator: Ruth Gervis (Streatfeild’s sister, though the publisher didn’t realise this when she commissioned the illustrations. You can see Gervis’ original illustrations at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books).